Monday, March 8, 2010
After an argument with her husband at a party, Jenna Rosen impulsively takes off on an unplanned trip to Alaska. Jenna and Robert have been struggling with their marriage since their young son Bobby drowned at a posh resort near the Alaskan coast. The fight is the last straw for Jenna, who drives away from the party in her husband's car and boards a ferry taking her to what will be a very confusing, yet cathartic destination. Upon arriving, Jenna begins to check out the small town of Wrangell, where she is immediately drawn into stories and legends of the Tlingit Indians and the Tlingit kushtaka spirits, who are the thieves of souls. Meeting a local man named Eddie who offers her a room in his home in which to stay, Jenna is quickly drawn into strange circumstances and she soon comes to believe that the kushtaka spirits are not just a legend. Jenna has reason to believe that these spirits have stolen away her son's soul and that they are after hers as well. With her relationship with Eddie becoming more than just platonic and her growing belief that the malevolent kushtaka spirits are vying for her soul, Jenna escapes once again to find an Alaskan shaman to help her outrun the kushtaka and to restore her son's soul to rest. Blending elements of magical realism with the interpersonal story of Jenna's life, Raven Stole the Moon is a very complex and dark work of fiction.
I have read numerous good reviews of Garth Stein's book The Art of Racing in the Rain, and though I have not yet read it, I have been looking forward to sampling something by this author. I was very pleased to have been contacted to review this book, a re-release of Stein's first work of fiction that forays deeply into the magical realism genre. I have to say that the book was a little different than what I had been expecting, but nonetheless it was a great reading experience.
First of all, I felt that the relationship that was portrayed between Jenna and her husband Robert was very convincing and realistic. The arguments that they got caught up in were intensely dramatic and real and at times I would wince at the abuse that the two of them were hurling at each other. At no time did I feel that the couple didn't love each other anymore. Rather I felt that the heartache that was their son's death had compromised their emotions and minds and they couldn't seem to get any kind of emotional equilibrium achieved. It was very sad to see them so distraught, and by alienating each other, they were really alienating themselves. There are some sections of the book that deal with Jenna's total inability to cope with her child's death and her foray into prescription drug addiction and alcoholism. I felt that those sections were also realistic and they made me feel doubly sad for Jenna because it was clear that she had no handle on her feelings at all. When she basically runs away from her husband to travel to Alaska, I had been hoping that she would be able to use her time away as a means of healing herself and putting the past behind her.
But Jenna doesn't seem able to outrun her past, because from the moment she sets foot in Alaska, forces beyond her control seem to be gathering towards her, pushing their way into her mind and forcing her to believe in things that she finds at first outlandish. When she meets Eddie and begins to camp out at his house, he stresses to her the bizarreness and unbelievability of the ideas that Jenna is beginning to have, which drives a wedge between them. Though they are both attracted to one another, the tension of their differing beliefs keeps them apart, and it is in this section that we first begin to see the subtle magical realism in the tale creeping out of the story.
Though Robert is frantic to find his wife, Jenna seems to have no time to devote to thoughts of Robert, or Eddie for that matter, because she is starting to feel oddly compelled to discover whether the legendary kushtaka spirits have stolen her son's soul. Though it seems to be an off-the-wall assumption, the nuances of the story make it almost credible that Jenna would be looking towards these spirits for her son's salvation. The magical elements in the story were crisply delineated but didn't come off as awkward of clumsy. They also had a very artistic feel to them, which went far in my eyes to build towards a compelling and interesting conclusion. I think part of the reason for the feeling of cohesion in this story were the mythological qualities of the stories peppered throughout the first half of the book. Through the use of these stories, Stein captures a lot of the local feel of Alaska and its Native American inhabitants, greatly detailing stories of the Tlingit Indian spirit Raven.
In the last two sections of the book, the story turns sharply from interpersonal narrative to a detailed and frightening magical realism novel. Jenna is pursued and captured by the kushtaka spirits and it is not clear what will happen to her or, for that matter, her soul. Jenna also finds interesting information about the whereabouts of her son's soul and the story builds towards a heart-racing confrontation between the humans and the spirits who want to absorb them. I found this battle between the kushtaka and the humans to be woven really tightly into the story and because of the slightly otherworldly aspect of the earlier plot, it didn't seem like the story was overwhelmed with awkward and outrageous elements. In fact, I felt that the story's conclusion had really been built solidly on its magical realism foundation and it all came together in a rather scary and mind-bending way.
One thing that I thought I would mention in this review is the kushtaka spirits themselves. They come into the story as a sort of shape-shifter whose natural shapes seem to be of very human looking otters. These shape-shifters find ways to isolate human souls in peril and then take them down to their underground warren where they are transformed into kushtaka themselves. It is said in the story that once they have abducted you, you are never able to leave and that theirs is a hellish existence that no one would chose for themselves. They are remarkably frightening when they show up in the story as well, looking almost human but for the black glossy eyes and craggy teeth. They are also very forceful about abducting the humans, changing their shapes into those of people that the characters know and trust, stealing them away into the night with nary a sound. Stien mentions in the afterword of his novel that almost all of the otherworldly aspects of his story, including the kushtaka, have come directly from the real legends of the Tlingit Indians who inhabited this part of the world. I was really interested in that bit by the author and felt that he did an exemplary job of incorporating these legends into his tale.
I thought that this was a very interesting and diverting story and I think that those who have read other books by Garth Stein might be interested in this singularly unique tale that he has told. I think it's very different from the other books that he has out there and I really ended up liking it a lot. I also think that those readers who enjoy stories imbued with a good dose of magical realism would get a lot of enjoyment out of this tale. It's just spooky enough to make you want to read it in a well lit area but it also has the organic and personal feel of a novel about relationships. A very uncommon story by a well loved author. Recommended.
The publishers of this awesome book have generously offered one paperback copy to my readers. If you would like a chance to win it, please leave a comment on this post with your e-mail address, so I can contact you if you win. A valid e-mail address must be left in order for you to be entered in this giveaway. The winner will be selected at random on March 25th. Good Luck to all entrants!
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.